SKIN THE CITY


I won’t call it graffiti, this practice of making memory by inscribing place onto itself.

In January 2013, the organization I run, 596 Acres, became one of the first “stewdio tenants" at the then-newly-reopened Silent Barn on Bushwick, Brooklyn. We took over a portion of an abandoned garage, built a platform to raise our carpet and desk legs away from the concrete floor and turned it into an “office.” The Silent Barn had signed a 10-year lease on a live-work space that suggested some kind of permanence, or at least some kind of duration. 2022 seemed an awfully long time away.

Silent Barn 2016.

Bushwick was changing fast. Auto repair places were rubbing elbows with $4-coffee spots; new residents and old at one of those fish places where you can get fresh fish or a fry up and there is only one table and three chairs for the lunchtime crowd to silently negotiate.

Postcard from 2013 to 2016.

Around the corner from our garage stood a majestic church with a 190 foot copper steeple, St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, opened in 1892. The building had hosted a congregation until the 2000s and a community garden for several decades, but in the more recent past had become the site of parties, artist studios and, briefly, an indoor velodrome for bicycle races.

The steeple was how everyone told direction in that corner of Brooklyn; it reached dozens of feet above the elevated subway tracks and winked its ever-greener green from sometimes unexpected directions. A few blocks in each direction, three distinct street grids turn away from each other, a relics of the independence of the six towns that became Kings County in New York State and then the City of Brooklyn, which later joined New York. A compass marker here has helped for over a century.

But the church and its spire have never been formally designated a landmark. Numerous requests for the NYC Landmarks Commission to evaluate the building for a designation under the NYC Landmarks law, including one made the local City Council Member and a team of Architecture History students from Columbia University in 2010, were ignored by the agency or cast aside with the simple response that the building itself was in too precarious condition to designate.

In 2015, in an unprecedented move, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village a landmark based on its import in the trajectory of the development of the LGBT community and international movement, as opposed to based on its physical characteristics. As the New York Times reported, several speakers at the designation hearing pointed out that the buildings that house Stonewall are not architecturally distinguished and “would not earn landmark status on aesthetic grounds.” Yet the designation will protect the physical buildings that house the Inn from future alterations. The Commission report begins, "The Stonewall Inn, the starting point of the Stonewall Rebellion, is one of the most important sites associated with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender history in New York City and the nation." It continues for many pages, describing how the Stonewall Inn operated (“the owners made regular payoffs to the Greenwich Village’s Sixth Police Precinct”) and contextualizing the role of this meeting place in its historic moment (“New York police could arrest anyone wearing less than three items of clothing that were deemed “appropriate” to their sex, and the State Liquor Authority made it illegal for a bar to serve someone who was known to be gay.”). This is a new path to protecting places that matter to our communities, but it’s coming a little late.

"The Commission report begins, 'The Stonewall Inn, the starting point of the Stonewall Rebellion, is one of the most important sites associated with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender history in New York City and the nation.'"

Silent Barn 2016.

Rapacious development is churning and devouring New York City’s outer borough neighborhoods. Gathering places are first on the chopping block (though themselves seem to carry both past and future: in South Williamsburg, a former synagogue re-emerges as a community-run park through 596 Aces’ efforts.

The week we moved to the Silent Barn, the sale of the former church building across the street to Cayuga Capital Management, a private for-profit developer planning a market-rate condo conversion, had just been completed. Architects seeking approval of their conversion plans showed renderings that left the pointy spire in tact and described apartments with stained glass windows in its upper reaches. The developer, in their marketing materials, wrote:

In 2012, Cayuga Capital Management (CCM) purchased this development site consisting of roughly 27,000 square foot of land and 75,000 of gross buildable square feet located in Bushwick. The existing buildings – which include a church, a four story former middle school building as well as a 15,000 square foot vacant land parcel – will be converted to 99 residential units. CCM plans on retaining the existing structures including the church and the school, which will be retrofitted with apartments. The church with its striking green spire originally opened in 1892 and is a historically significant property in Brooklyn. After its completion the total size of the project will consist of 90,000 gross square feet including parking area.

The Church was designed by Cooper Union-educated architect Theobald Engelhardt a generation after the village of Bushwick was incorporated into the new City (!) of Brooklyn. Mr. Engelhardt’s own architecture office was around the corner from the Church site on Broadway while the spire went up in a building he also designed on what was then Brooklyn’s Wall Street (across the street from a German singing society hall he also designed).

One hundred years later, the intricate architecture created to foster social inclusion, artistic production and a life of collective endeavor is rapidly transforming into private residences for sale or (more likely) rent on the unregulated market. The singing hall is now the Opera House Lofts and private developers are buying up churches and converting them to residences for those who can afford their lofty ceilings and bespoke window frames.

As we arrived in the Bushwick in early 2013, NYC Landmarks designation was in the pre-Stonewall era. Landmarking was reserved for architectural artifacts, disconnected from their cultural context or their social import. Even in the post-Stonewall era, a landmark designation for a piece of the built environment with mercurial meanings that have been bestowed upon it by changing local demographics over many decades is extremely unlikely.

Knowing that nothing in the architectural renderings for the conversion of the church into expensive apartments was enforceable and predicting then that it was very likely to never be realized, artist Daniel Eizirik and I conceived of a mural that he painted on the rear entrance to the Silent Barn to mark the moment: If You Love the Music, Spare the Drummer (a cumbia for Stanwix Street).

The mural captured the world we saw that upside down winter, the world we knew was vanishing. The mural memorial is the only landmark designation that Mr. Engelhardt’s majestic spire will ever get, and it has long outlasted the 190-foot cooper one, which has already been placed into a dumpster and sold for scrap as I write this. The mural captures the changing world as we found it, a tattoo on brick inked to mark a moment.

Corner of Bushwick Avenue and Melrose: 2016, 2013, as memorialized.

It includes what we saw around us at that moment: the fish place, a Spanish-speaking fashion boutique, chain link fences surrounding city-owned land, a flat fix/auto glass joint attached to the gas station. Our memorial, like the Landmark’s Commission’s designation of Stonewall, is also not based on the architectural distinction (though the neighborhood has plenty of them and very little recognition for them); it is instead, a marker of a moment in a cultural melting pot.

Auto Glass/ Flat Fix, 2013 & as memorialized.

Auto Glass 2016.

Fence 2013 & as memorialized.

The roof above the garage leaked and 596 Acres moved out after a two-month tenure, but the mural remains, a memorial to a moment in the neighborhood’s history.

From: Cayuga Capital

Sent: Monday, April 13, 2015 11:00 AM

Subject: 626 Bushwick Avenue

Thank you for writing. We were disappointed that the steeple needed to be removed. Through the Department of Buildings process, it was determined that the old steeple was structurally unsound and its continued existence posed a risk to the surrounding community.

626 Bushwick Ave, 2016.

The skin of the city shifts. Waves of residents come and go, meanings vanish. The longer I live here, the more I feel like I am a creature of many phantom limbs. Hungry, I walk to Jimmy’s hoping for fish and a chair to eat it in, but it is gone. In its place, a bodega expanded into a head shop and a pharmacy. It’s not the worst offense, these changing storefronts. But the churn at the whim of capital is a storm that rages and threatens the living parts of the City.

We offer a memorial directly on the land, a surveyor’s flag to mark what we found there, a small tool for the little guys in the clash between psychogeography and real estate.

Looking up Bushwick Avenue, 2016.

You can also find it on Google using the Time Machine feature. 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011.

Originally published on The Nature of Cities website in July 2016. Republished with the author's permission.

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